Extreme weather travel guide

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 6, 2012

The extreme weather conditions that have plagued the D.C. region expose some of the weaknesses in our transportation system as well as in our travelers. With most of summer lurking ahead, here are tips I’ve collected from travel experts and from observation that target some of the top concerns commuters have with the system and with each other.

Before leaving home

Because there’s so much information available to guide commuters before they set out each morning, I often ask travelers what sources they rely on most. Sorry, most of them tell me, they just get in their cars and go. If they run into trouble, they turn on the radio.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Although I admire this spirit of ad­ven­ture, a little planning for traveling in extreme weather or its aftermath is bound to benefit mind and body.

Visualize your route. You may not have heard of a derecho before June 29, but you’re probably pretty familiar with the consequences of downed wires and trees, darkened intersections, flooded streets, detoured buses and stalled Metro trains along the route you take to work every day.

What challenges are you likely to confront? Is your regular route the best one under today’s conditions, or should you vary the route or your mode of travel? Perhaps you could walk or take a bus to the Metro station instead of driving.

Should you stay home or find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi? It’s not a sign of weakness. Today’s office environment allows many jobs to be done with a laptop and a mobile phone. If your employer doesn’t have a telework program, help management develop one.

Dark intersections

One of the most common challenges occurs at intersections where the traffic signals are dark because of power failures.

Most drivers will do the right thing and treat the intersection as an all-way stop. But don’t count on it. Some merely slow rather than stop. Some don’t even tap the brakes.

The relative size of the roadways or the volume of traffic does not affect the requirement to stop. Drivers generally proceed in the order in which they arrived at the intersection. If two arrive at the same time, a driver should yield to the motorist on the right.

The number of lanes does complicate the sequence. Eye contact and polite hand gestures smooth the way. But an understanding between two drivers is not necessarily shared by all. Trust but verify.

Driving

The No. 1 complaint drivers have about other drivers in inclement weather: They don’t turn on their headlights when they turn on their windshield wipers. Wipers on/lights on is the law in the D.C. region. It’s about being seen as well as seeing.

Expand the buffer zone between vehicles, and slow down so you’ll have time to react. Be ready for others to make unusual maneuvers around a downed limb or a pool of water.

Cars are under more stress in extreme heat. AAA recommends checking the coolant, hoses and belts, tires, oil and batteries.

Don’t leave children or the elderly in parked cars. And don’t forget the pets. As a pedestrian, be alert for cars with rolled up windows and people or animals unable to fend for themselves inside. Call 911.

After shopping, get the children and pets out of the car first, before removing the shopping bags.

Carry liquids, whether you’re driving, cycling or walking. If you varied your travel and chose to walk or bike, take into account your unfamiliarity with this mode and the toll extreme weather might take on your body.

Metro

If the Metrorail car is hot, don’t just sit there. At the next station, try another car. The cars have their own cooling equipment. On summer days when I’ve carried a digital thermometer from car to car, I’ve found variations of 10 degrees.

Trust your feelings. Riders can usually tell the difference between a car that’s warm because it’s hot outside and a car with an air-conditioning problem. I’ve seen riders on platforms pivot away from a car entrance as soon as the doors open and they feel the air from inside. Also, the car probably won’t have too many riders, because they’ve already followed step one and moved.

Go to one of the rail-car intercoms and tell the operator the car is hot. The operator will call that in. Metro has maintenance staff members along the lines who can board the cars and try to fix problems. A hot car is a sufficient emergency to use the intercom. Riders also can call in information about heat problems to Metro’s customer service phone number, 202-637-1328. Remember the car number.

Above ground, the sunlight shining on one side or the other of a train makes a big difference in the temperature. Trains that have recently entered service tend to be warmer, because the air conditioning hasn’t had a chance to take effect.

In the stations, the wide entrances, the presence of hundreds of passengers and the trains pushing warm air ahead of them contribute to the heat. The last underground station before the line goes aboveground — stations such as Union Station or Ballston — can be especially awful.

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